All Class

The Wii's Big Brain Academy makes summer school cool.

One of the best new video games on the market requires you to take math tests. During summer break, no less.

But before you cue up "Night on Bald Mountain" and run like hell, you really should play Big Brain Academy: Wii Degree. Any "party title" that can hold a group's attention with counting, memorization, and logic puzzles is on to something.

Big Brain Academy: Wii Degree is the sequel to the surprise Nintendo DS hit. Not to be confused with Nintendo's other educational handheld juggernaut -- that would be Brain Age -- Big Brain Academy is the better option for multi-player action, though its kiddie graphics might fool you.

Hey, not every degree leads to stem-cell research.
Hey, not every degree leads to stem-cell research.

An odd little professor -- perhaps the bastard offspring of Mr. Peanut and Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo -- grades your performance as you're tested in areas such as "Identify" and "Compute." It's more fun than you're thinking: You'll use the Wii remote to pop numbered balloons from lowest to highest and pick the correct ugly kid out of a lineup, for instance. These point-and-click games are simple to play, but painstaking to master.

With only 15 mini-games in all, the single-player mode is too breezy to justify firing up your Wii; you'll earn your degree as fast as a Sally Struthers mail-order diploma. (By comparison, single-player mode works well on the DS version, because players can play in on-the-go bursts while, say, riding the bus or waiting in line to buy a Wii. But if you're tethered to a couch, it ain't all that.)

Big Brain Academy really makes the grade when it comes to its three multiplayer modes, which allow up to eight brainiacs to compete at once; the fact that you can use your personalized "Mii Avatars" to play is pure gravy. In "Mind Sprint," you'll race to be the first to finish up to 24 fast-and-furious brain-busters. The competition intensifies when you realize losing doesn't mean you're bad -- just that you're dumber than your friends. So unless your only pals are mouth-breathing troglodytes, prepare to be humiliated more than once.

"Mental Marathon" requires you to maintain a perfect score, or you're out, and "Brain Quiz" cops a game-show format, in which you pick categories off the big board. The fun peaks with a game requiring you to hold the Wiimote speaker to your ear like a phone and take a restaurant order. At last, all the thrills of the McDonald's drive-through can be yours at home.

Multi-player mode even allows a single player to compete against anyone's previous high score. These races still unfold in real time, so it's like playing against a friend who isn't sitting next to you. Or like playing, perhaps, against a giant imaginary rabbit. It's your business.

A terrific disclaimer greets players upon startup: "Experience may change during online play." That's right, Wii owners: There's finallyan online-supported game out there! Welcome to the 21st century, Nintendo.

But it's no "Xbox Live." You can only e-mail your brain score to anyone in your Wii address book, wherein she may play against you in the "ghost player" mode. So while it's neat to fly your big brain across the country and say, "Beat this score, dude," the experience would be more fulfilling if it were actually happening, y'know, live.

It's hard enough to stand out from the mini-game pack, and even more so with a game whose premise tests your grade-school education. Regardless, Big Brain Academy: Wii Degree graduates with honors.

 
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